Ever feel “butterflies” in your stomach when you’re nervous or excited? Were you ever taught to “listen to your gut?” Same. It’s no secret that we feel emotions in our physical bodies. But could taking care of our gut health also be the secret to happiness?
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The gut controls more than just digestion. Research increasingly shows just how powerful the connection between the brain and gut is—as if there weren’t already enough reasons to take care of our gut health! Navigating new health information can be challenging, but don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. As a dietician, I’m sharing what I’ve found in my research and the tips I share with clients. If you’ve heard of the gut-brain connection but aren’t quite sure what it means, read on to learn more.
The gut-brain connection
The communication system between your gut and your brain is known as the gut-brain axis, AKA the gut-brain connection. Our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract for short) is comprised of millions of neurons. These neurons are connected to your brain through nerves in the nervous system, the biggest one being the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is able to send signals back and forth between the gut and the brain. Aside from neurons, the GI tract also contains trillions of microbes (typically bacteria) that play a role in immune function and inflammation. They also release chemicals that affect how your brain works. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin (the happy hormone).
As more research emerges, scientists and medical professionals alike are beginning to better understand the link between digestion and the way we think. This is also why there’s an emerging field of nutritional psychiatry linking the foods we eat to our mental health. Although all mental health symptoms should be worked on with your doctor or therapist, taking care of your gut health might also optimize your mood. While there are many ways to take care of your gut health, here are five of my favorite tips I always recommend to clients.
1. Stay hydrated
You’ve heard it before, and I’ll say it again: Water is your best friend. Water keeps things moving and helps your body digest all the different foods you eat each day. Additionally, it keeps your bowel movements regular, which is crucial for the health of those microbes that play a major part in the body’s serotonin production.
A general guideline is to drink half your body weight of water (in ounces) each day. However, needs may vary depending on outside temperature, exercise, and age. Although it sounds simple, I have often found that drinking enough water is a struggle for most people, myself included. Carrying a water bottle with you is one of the easiest ways to ensure you drink enough water throughout the day (bonus if it’s cute!). To take it one step further, try using a straw.
2. Choose fiber
There are different types of fiber in the foods we eat. Some act as a binding mechanism to push food through the digestive tract to create regular bowel movements. Some act as prebiotics to provide food for gut bacteria. Fiber can be found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and more. Regardless of the types of foods you consume, it’s important to consume adequate fiber daily. Research has shown eating adequate fiber is linked to a more diverse gut microbiome. And a more diverse gut microbiome is linked to better nutrient absorption—AKA better overall health, including brain health.
If you are not already incorporating fiber into your diet, don’t stress. Make sure you add additional fiber gradually over the course of a few weeks. Going from consuming little fiber to 25 grams a day could cause potential GI distress, such as bloating or cramping. (Think: adding a vegetable side with lunch or pairing a handful of berries with your breakfast.) Lastly, make sure you are drinking plenty of water to prevent constipation while adding more fiber.
3. Eat a wide variety of plants
When it comes to your diet, variety is the spice of life. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can ensure you meet your micronutrient needs. It’s also key to a healthy gut. One study found those who consumed more than 30 different plants per week had more diverse gut bacteria than those who ate 10 or fewer. If that sounds challenging, it may be easier than you think. When preparing meals, think of additional fruits and veggies you can add, such as fruit on top of oatmeal or roasted vegetables with pasta. Try meal prepping with seasonal fruits and veggies, or aim to pick out a produce item you haven’t tried before when grocery shopping. Additionally, opting for plant-based snacks like mixed nuts, veggies, and hummus, or fruit with yogurt can help round out your day.
4. Choose fermented foods
Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut provide good bacteria for your gut, which is helpful for maintaining a diverse gut microbiome—and you already know a diverse gut microbiome can mean healthier gut-brain connection, production of serotonin, etc. In one study, researchers determined that individuals who consumed sauerkraut for six weeks had improved irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, like bloating and gas. Additionally, it improved the makeup of the gut microbiome. To reap the benefits of fermented foods, aim to incorporate them into your daily meals. Try topping tacos, salads, or your favorite meals with sauerkraut or kimchi, or swap your regular yogurt for probiotic-filled coconut or whole milk yogurt.
5. Make time to stretch
Stretching is often overlooked, especially when it comes to optimizing gut health. You probably already know stretching can release tension and counteract the effects of the hours of sitting we do daily, but it can also help improve digestion. Stretches like downward dog and cat-cow are great for reducing symptoms of gas and bloating, and overall stretching improves blood flow to organs, which helps aid in a smoother digestive process and a healthier gut-brain connection. As a perk, stretching can help reduce stress, making it a great way to wind down after a long day. You don’t need a lot of time to stretch. Incorporating even five minutes into your work day or before bed is enough to make a difference.
These tips are not meant to serve as treatment for any GI conditions, anxiety, or depression. If you are experiencing GI conditions, please consult your doctor or gastroenterologist, and if you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety, it’s important to reach out and get help. See your doctor, get in contact with a therapist, and/or talk to a close friend or family member.
Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.